Will sculpting young minds be an easier prospect this time

This fall I’m going back to school. Not as a student. No U.C. extension courses in macramé or country line dancing for me. I’m going back to teach. My pupils: the Bay Area Jewish community’s best and brightest. The Avi Chai Foundation has teamed up with j. and BlueStarPR to present “Write On for Israel,” a two-year course for high school juniors. It aims to turn them into pro-Israel journalist-advocates. Enrollment in-cludes a free trip to Israel.

That’s the fun part.

Otherwise, “Write On” is boot camp. Students give up one Sunday a month to master the basics of Jewish history, journalism and modern media skills such as creating YouTube videos.

I’ll teach the kids what I know about journalism, helping them create catchy ledes, write prose that pops and crystallize ideas down to the essence.

The course will take a lot of time and energy. But I’m excited, because I can dust off my old teaching credential and finally put it to use.

I earned it in 2002 after a decade-long quest for a career change. At that point, I was a freelance writer of publicity materials — in other words, a Hollywood hack. And I was sick of it.

So I finished up my B.A. in English and enrolled in a teacher training program. I enjoyed studying educational philosophy. Only one thing: My professors forgot to teach me how to teach.

Despite having superb mentor teachers in the classroom, once I was thrown into a real school environment, I was left to sink or swim as a student teacher. Most days I sank.

A majority of the children were well behaved. But the few that caused trouble drove me nuts. I sent one boy to the principal’s office so often that I usually entered the classroom with a discipline form already filled out.

In another class, I had two students confide in me that they wanted to commit suicide. That led to automatic notification of school authorities and anguish for all concerned, including me. Most of the time, though, the kids just stared at me, glassy-eyed and bored.

Still, there were those electrifying moments when students would write something meaningful in their journals, expressing themselves more deeply than perhaps they ever had before. I take no credit. After all, the word education comes from the Latin meaning “to draw out from within.” The kids always had it in them.

I earned good evaluations, but after a half-hearted attempt to find a job in the Albany school district, I chucked the whole teaching thing out the window. I’m glad, too, because I definitely prefer working at j. to the long, hard slog in a crumbling public school system. I’m no martyr, no savior.

Now, when I ponder teaching Jewish kids how to express a passion for Israel and Judaism, it’s hard not to think about the importance of education in Jewish life. It says so right there in Deuteronomy: “And you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

I think about that tradition of having neophyte Hebrew students lick a dab of honey off the alef-bet, to symbolize the sweetness of learning. I hear the melody of “Ofyn Prepetshik,” that heart-rending Yiddish song about the rabbi teaching his yeshiva bochers by the firelight.

I doubt my new students will resemble yeshiva bochers so much as Cheetah Girls and Jonas Brothers. But I will do my best, and if I’m lucky, I’ll experience some magical teacher-student connections that keep teachers in the game.

Like the time I took my creative writing class outdoors to write haiku. It was a brisk fall day in Granada Hills. After I explained the rules of the Japanese poetic form, my kids spread out on the green, contemplated nature and wrote.

Here’s what Cynthia Ramos, a kid who had never written a line of verse in her life, came up with that morning:

“Golden leaves fly low

Windy winds come from the south — all things soft and humble.”

Drawn out from within.

If you know an incoming junior who would benefit from “Write On for Israel,” call (415) 543-6300 or write to [email protected]

Dan Pine can be reached at [email protected]

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.